Boxing needs to get better -- outside the ring

Boxing has always existed in its own alternate universe. Things that would be considered deplorable in any other line of work are not only acceptable in boxing, but encouraged, starting with the very premise of the sport: to beat your opponent insensible.

Another unique aspect of boxing is the unapologetic way in which black and white are routinely mixed to make green. As in dollars.

So it should come as no surprise that back in April, in what passes for boxing gamesmanship, unbeaten unified light heavyweight titleholder Sergey Kovalev, considered one of the world's five best boxers at any weight, decided it would be a good idea to post a photo of himself on Twitter posing alongside a young boy wearing a T-shirt with chimpanzee wearing boxing gloves, with the caption "Adonis looks great!"

Adonis is Adonis Stevenson, the lineal light heavyweight champion on the world, who is black.

There were the usual excuses. Because of his background, it was said, Kovalev didn't understand the offensive nature of the photo, or how deeply it could wound not only Stevenson, but an entire segment of the world's population.

"He had never seen a person of a different skin color [before leaving Russia]," one of his associates told me, as if that excused equating another human being with a monkey.

The outcry, such as it was, was predictable and justified. But over the long history of professional boxing, such a thing was by no means unprecedented. Going back to the turn of the 20th century, racial and ethnic differences have always been used to inflame passions over, and sell tickets to, boxing matches.

The ugly racial buildup to the Jack Johnson-James J. Jefferies heavyweight title fight in 1910 was echoed more than 70 years later when big, slow, white Gerry Cooney was presented as a legitimate challenger to the formidable Larry Holmes, and countless times in between. In nearly all cases, the objectionable buildup served to guarantee a huge gate for the fight, to which no one objected.

Incidentally, the Stevenson camp was so "outraged" by Kovalev's racial taunt that it immediately began negotiating to fight him -- better to cash in while the iron, and the tempers, are hot.

But it can be taken as evidence of the marginalization of this once-dominant sport that, aside from the small niche of boxing writers and fans who expressed outrage over Kovalev's racist taunt, the entire incident went largely ignored by the mainstream sports media.

In fact, the incident was basically forgotten -- Kovalev quickly removed the photo and issued a public apology on Twitter -- until last week, when Jean Pascal, a Canadian boxer of Haitian origin, chose to dredge it back up at a news conference in advance of his rematch with Kovalev Saturday night in Montreal.

Pascal's approach was presumably meant as an act of one-upmanship -- he produced a bunch of bananas at the podium, one of which he dropped in front of Kovalev's trainer, John David Jackson, who is black -- but it also served as a reminder that boxing hype is not like the hype for any other sport.

Can you imagine the outcry, for instance, if, instead of Kovalev and Stevenson, that Twitter photo had featured Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James? Or if Peyton Manning, at Super Bowl Media Day, offered bananas to Cam Newton?

The sports world would, quite rightly and possibly literally, explode.

And yet, because this incident happened in boxing, it is shrugged off as just another day in the life of a sport dying the longest of slow deaths.

But really, there is nothing new to see here. Back in 1975, Muhammad Ali, no one's idea of a white supremacist, taunted Joe Frazier before their epic third match by producing a small stuffed ape, shouting,"C'mon, gorilla, we're in Manila!"

It was disgusting, it was offensive, and yes, racist. And it no doubt filled the last of whatever theater seats remained unsold in those days of closed-circuit television fights.

By all accounts, Kovalev is a rough-edged character, a product of a busted home in Kopeysk, Russia, a mountain village on the edge of Siberia.

His own promoter, Kathy Duva, says that Kovalev "is not a politically correct gentleman. He has more in common with Mike Tyson than with Andre Ward," referring to the soft-spoken, religious and unbeaten former super middleweight champion who is expected to be Kovalev's most challenging opponent later this year.

That one, which is penciled in for November either in Las Vegas or New York, should be a classic good-and-evil promotion, the type on which boxing has always thrived. No need to specify which fighter will play which role.

Duva also rightly points out that it is precisely because of Kovalev's rough edges that boxing fans are fascinated with him, as they were with the relentlessly politically incorrect Tyson three decades ago.

"If Sergey wasn't beating people up in the ring," Duva said, "He'd be beating them up in the streets."

None of this excuses racism, of course; even our most celebrated thugs are expected to be equal-opportunity abusers.

But is serves to remind us that boxing is not like other sports. It is the NFL minus the armor and stripped of its veneer of glamour and respectability, its athletes unfiltered by handlers and marketing agents.

For what it's worth, Jackson vehemently denied that Kovalev is a racist. "If he was racist he wouldn't set foot in my gym, where everyone is black," he said. "He gets along with everybody."

And Don Turner, a great black trainer who was in Evander Holyfield's corner the night Tyson bit off a chunk of his ear, agreed with Jackson. "Kovalev lived at my training camp for a year and two months," Turner said. "He's a good kid. If he had any racial problems, he would have heard it from me."

But, Turner added, "He has what it takes to be a good fighter. He's a mean, mean, mean guy."

He said it with obvious admiration.

"He punches as hard as Bob Foster," Turner said, referring to the legendary late light heavyweight champion whose left hook could separate a man from his senses and virtually, his head from his shoulders.

In many lines of work, such a skill would not be seen as an attribute, but a reason to call the cops.

In the alternate universe of boxing, however, the ability to maim, with words and fists, often leads to fame, wealth and public adulation.

All language and cultural barriers aside, Kovalev understood that at some level, and every time he fights from here on, the issue is of whether he is or is not a racist is apt to come up again.

And as it has throughout the history of our most brutal sport, black and white will once again mix. And produce green.